Narrative insurgency | grassroots communications tips pt.3

Progressive change agents often engage in something that I call narrative attack; they make a direct attack on one narrative or worldview from the vantage point-and in the language-of their own opposing narrative or worldview.  For example, when some people wrap up their anti-environmental views (e.g. climate change denial) in the rhetoric of their creationist beliefs, it is all too tempting for more scientifically minded people to directly attack the climate change deniers’ whole belief system.  That is narrative attack.  Once a direct attack is made, persuasion becomes nearly impossible, because people feel that their whole belief system is under siege.

(Clearly conservatives do this as well, but given that the purpose of this post is not to criticize but to offer communications strategy suggestions, I’m just discussing this from the viewpoint of progressives.)

A narrative insurgency approach, on the other hand, examines the other’s narrative, learning the component parts, looking for “allies” inside the narrative.  In the Biblical creation story, for example, God charges humankind to be the caretakers of God’s sacred creation.  Rather than directly attack a creationist’s whole belief system, a “narrative insurgent” looks to foment “home-grown insurgency” inside the belief system against the most problematic beliefs (which, in this case, is indifference to climate change).  By stressing humanity’s mandate to care for God’s creation, that ally belief is singled out for positive reinforcement within a complex belief system.

This approach works with people’s tendency toward confirmation bias, which smartMeme summarizes as “people’s habit of screening information based on their own beliefs. In other words, people are much more likely to believe something that reinforces their existing opinions and values than to accept information that challenges their beliefs.”

To be clear, the term “narrative insurgency” is internal and strictly metaphorical, and it may be a more useful metaphor for some social change groups than others.  I first introduced the framework of narrative insurgency versus narrative attack in Building a Successful Antiwar Movement:

If we are to transform cultural meanings, we need to think not in terms of attacking culture from the outside, but rather in terms of homegrown insurgency, indigenous to the culture. The root of the word insurgency is “rise up.” Insurgencies rise up from within. Narrative insurgency rises up from within a cultural narrative. [We need to change] the culture from the inside out. (With the term narrative insurgency we are stressing that new meanings must rise up within existing cultural narratives – a nonviolent and thoroughly political process.)

Returning to the original example of climate change denial, the narrative insurgent approach-assuming that it is well executed with a well-crafted message and an orientation to genuinely connect with others-is likely to help in important ways.  First, it helps to find and draw out allies: creationists (or closet evolutionists in the given religious community) who care about the environment.  Second, this approach will make it more difficult for your hardest opposition to win allies for their extreme position – or to demonize advocates of environmental stewardship.  Finally, by repeating and positively reinforcing this message (in the context of ongoing engagement and relationship), the belief that we should care for the earth is strengthened within the given community’s complex collective belief system.  Organizers then have the challenge of helping to give positive collective expression to the emboldened belief.

Again, from Building a Successful Antiwar Movement:

Cultural narratives (e.g. America: Beacon of Liberty, Purveyor of Democracy) are characteristically complex, often rife with contradictions, and vary from one person to the next. Narrative insurgents do not reject narratives wholesale, but distinguish between those components that are allied, hostile or neutral to their cause. They embrace as much of a cultural narrative as possible-the allied and neutral components-and encourage the further development of the allied components, using these as the foundations for their organizing efforts in the given community.

It’s important to point out that this approach is not about inherently avoiding direct confrontation with destructive narratives and beliefs.  Rather it is a preference for utilizing positive reinforcement at many points in a long-term social change process.  Ultimately there comes a time when a destructive narrative becomes untenable to a critical mass of people, and when a new polarization will be useful (a revolutionary moment, for example).  The strategy here is for the necessary lead-up work to such a moment: to feed the allied components within a narrative until they are strong enough to burst out of the old framework.  (I will explore this moment of the mass psychic break in a future post.)

Since publication of Building a Successful Antiwar Movement four years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to lead campaign strategy sessions in which participants brainstorm together to list beliefs and stories that are popular among the constituencies they are engaging.  They categorize the beliefs into five categories on a spectrum: strongly supportive, somewhat supportive, neutral, somewhat opposing, and strongly opposing.  A strongly supportive belief would be one that lends itself strongly to the group’s mission and purpose.  This mapping helps the group to identify what kinds of messages are likely to have the strongest resonance in their campaign messaging.

This is only a genuinely grassroots approach if the framework is applied in the context of accountable relationships and with reliable feedback loops.  It’s about connecting with people’s positive values – not tricking them.  Concluding on that note, once again from Building a Successful Antiwar Movement:

If change agents do not love the people and communities they are engaging, then narrative insurgency for them will likely be an unsuccessful attempt to manipulate people to further an agenda. It is not enough for that agenda to be human liberation or even love itself – in the abstract. A change agent must love the specific people and communities s/he engages. S/he must value each relationship in its own right. While s/he will often disagree with others’ opinions, s/he still values and even empathizes with their perspectives. S/he is forgiving toward their shortcomings. S/he is always rooting for them, always finding something worthy of praise, even when it seems like finding a needle in a haystack. As such, narrative insurgency begins to come naturally; s/he does not have to feign identification with the allied and neutral components within the narrative, within the culture … A change agent learns the intricacies of cultural narratives not to deceive people, but to communicate common values in a language that holds meaning for them.

This is the third post in a series.

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